Constitutional authorities work for citizens, not government of the day

The time has now come to make the procedure to select senior personnel to head institutions transparent and completely merit-based.
Constitutional authorities work for citizens, not government of the day

TSR SUBRAMANIAN Former Cabinet Secretary of India

Recently, a television channel broadcast an ‘exclusive’ exposé of the Comptroller Auditor General (CAG) office suppressing or diluting 11 major reports in 2013, ostensibly to protect the Central government of the day from severe adverse comment relating to ‘crony’ capitalism, in the months prior to the General Elections. Major scams such as 2G, Antrix-Devas, Coalgate, misappropriation in Commonwealth Games had broken out, showing the government of the day in very poor light.

The implicit allegation was that 11 potential scams (including Aircel Maxis) were not presented before the Parliament through a deliberate decision by ‘higher authorities’ in the CAG. There was also the suggestion that ministers and others (presumably interested businessmen) had intervened with the CAG to lobby allegedly for suppression of potentially-damaging ‘revelations’. If these are even remotely true, this is extremely disturbing. Those in the authority or the business world approaching the CAG, ostensibly to tone down or downplay their reports, are akin to accused in a criminal proceeding approaching the judge clandestinely to influence the latter.

The currently revealed information, after further investigation, may turn out to be much larger in scope than the 11 scams mentioned. The Constitutional institutions such as the Election Commission, the CAG, the Monopolies Commission, the UPSC, and the CVC are not government agencies. Much like the judiciary, these agencies are creatures of the Constitution, and are the ‘watchdogs’ to ensure that public interest is upheld; these are not accountable to the government of the day, they serve the citizen. Prior to 10th Chief Election Commissioner T N Seshan, the Election Commission functioned essentially as a wing of the government—it was a lapdog in the service of the state, much as the CBI or Enforcement Directorate has been at the disposal of the government.

Seshan, an erstwhile government official, ‘tore of his whiskers’ and aggressively maintained an independent stance since the moment he joined his Constitutional position as the Election Commissioner. He would be a churlish man today who would attribute motives to the actions of the Election Commission. The UPSC has maintained its integrity, probity, and independence through the decades. Prior to Vinod Rai’s period, the CAG was also taken lightly—indeed, many earlier CAGs did not recognise the pivotal role that they had to play in maintaining citizen interest in public finance and good governance.

It will be a tragedy if Rai’s successors let down the people of India. One notes that many Central governments in the past did a poor job of administration—indeed, two previous governments far surpassed the record of Marcos of the Philippines on crony capitalism. Most state governments seem to be corrupt as a normal working mode, with few exceptions, if any. The present Central government is surely a refreshing change on the issue of probity and attention to public interest—we cannot predict the same for future governments.

The Parliament is seen to be inept, irrelevant—nobody will miss it if it functions just one day in the year. Under such sordid circumstances, it is for the judiciary and the Constitutional institutions to stand up, assert their independence, and function fearlessly in the citizen’s interest—none of them owe their existence to the government of the day, nor are they accountable to it. It is imperative that the leadership in the Constitutional institutions is intellectually and financially honest.

The time has now come to make the procedure to select senior personnel to head institutions transparent and completely merit-based. An institutional mechanism needs to be set in place to preempt the interest of the government of the day to tarnish the purity of selection. While the present Central government has generally been extremely fair and objective in such matters, the same cannot be predicted for future governments; besides, there are many institutional positions in the state governments where politics, money and personal interests play a major role in selection.

Considering the critical role of these institutions, it is not wise for the selections to be left purely in the hands of the political community or the party of the day whose self-interest may trump the citizen’s interest; a new selection mechanism is now imperative. Many questions, primarily stemming from the AgustaWestland scam, were raised when the previous CAG was selected—this included the impartiality of a former defence secretary becoming a CAG. One cannot tarnish anyone’s image without concrete evidence; however, if these latest allegations—such as a large number of scams were suppressed or downplayed— are borne out, the CAG’s intellectual honesty could be subjected to questioning.

Senior government personnel are protectors of public interest—it is not sufficient that they be financially honest, which is assumed. The question is, do they stand up when the citizen’s interest is on the line? Thus, in case of the then Coal Secretary in the Coalgate scam, who was admittedly and unquestionably financially honest, the question remains, did he stand against political interests, and made his recommendations on merits? A secretary to the government is not a ‘doormat’, a pleasant watchdog, which permits thieves to enter with impunity.

Senior personnel are not there for decoration. Often in state governments, senior posts are filled not on merit, but on the incumbent’s ability to collaborate, cooperate, and indeed conspire. Thus, a decade back, two of the four members of a state cadre, rated as ‘most corrupt’ by their own cadre mates, superseded many others for the post of chief secretary; in a southern state in recent years, the chief secretary was selected overlooking 16 senior candidates—on merits? Is it accidental that hundreds of Durga Nagpals and D Roopas are often transferred in every state the moment a mafia or an MP makes a midnight telephone call to the chief minister?

Prakash Singh’s reforms for the police, and the 2013 Supreme Court orders on transfers in TSR Subramanian & others Vs Union of India & Others, are treated with disdain by the state governments. The reasons are obvious. A system runs only through institutions. The Constitutional institutions have a critical role to play in governance. They should not be allowed to be weakened by political interests.

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